The Myth of Transracial Identity

The Myth of Transracial Identity

The Humanist

Sincere Kirabo

Ninety years ago, writer Carl Van Vechten published a novel intended to be a celebration of Harlem, which at the time was experiencing a budding literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that sparked a new cultural identity for Black America.

Van Vechten’s vivid and nuanced tale granted white America a voyeur pass to “the great black walled city” of Harlem. There was only one problem: Van Vechten was a white man. Worse, to further inspire exposure over this willful exploit, which he referred to as his “Negro novel,” Van Vechten decided to name his roman à clef after an expression used to describe the balcony seating of Blacks in the era of overt segregation: Nigger Heaven.

Juxtapose this unauthorized thievery of select cultural expressions of an oppressed minority group with a present-day example. Last summer, educator and NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal was exposed as a white woman portraying herself as being Black. A torrent of media coverage and interviews ensued. Seemingly for the first time, the US was obsessed with the plight of a Black woman, except that the attention centered on a white woman who donned blackface and frizzy hairpieces…

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